Just like the Biblical tale of Jacob and Esau, when it comes to Israeli media and politics, the hands are the hands of Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon (Noni) Mozes. It doesn't matter where you watch TV news or whether you read the news in print or online, the man pulling the strings behind the scenes in the Israeli media market and political landscape is Mozes.
This could hardly be considered news. Three years ago this columnist wrote about Mozes' "tilting mechanism," in which he sits in his office at the Yedioth Ahronoth headquarters in Tel Aviv and decides whom he should punish and whom he should reward; who gets the "terror treatment" and who is caressed; who is a friend and who is a foe. He sits there and brandishes a stick and a carrot simultaneously.
At the end of the day, the only criteria by which he evaluates those people is: what benefit can I extract from them, for my business, for my associates' businesses and for my allies; what guides him is the sense that he is omnipotent, that feeling that he has been the real prime minister in Israel for years on end, even though not a single ballot has ever been cast for him.
Mozes, who also holds the title of Yedioth's managing editor, is actually interested in politics. The facts speak for themselves, just look at his paper's coverage of the recent election. Over the six months leading up to the election, pages 1 through 3 in his daily (the most important part of the paper) carried no fewer than 66 headlines that cast a negative light on only one political figure: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Were there any positive headlines, something that could theoretically make the coverage appear more balanced? None whatsoever. Among the words that were part of the daily vocabulary and which appeared time and again were: budget cuts, hunger, the entire nation experiences layoffs, fear, danger, hurting, unemployment, attack on Iran in the fall, crushing blow, economic crisis, the great failure, catastrophe, concern, bluffing, predicament, conflict, low point, deterioration, rupture, rage, clash, criticism, storm, bad, travesty, shocked, and concerned. And there were also 45 cartoons with unflattering portrayals of Netanyahu.
Let's imagine there was an intelligence officer on Mars trying to assess Israel's current situation based entirely on open source media; and let's assume that he could rely only on Yedioth Ahronoth. What a scary scenario. There is no doubt that he would compile a highly troubling report and warn his fellow red Martians not to set foot on Israeli soil, where the hungry and unemployed are strolling the streets helplessly, where the military is disintegrating and ill-prepared for war. The state could implode any moment, he would warn them.
Primarily a democratic state
But let's for a moment assume this intelligence officer is more intelligent than that. It would be safe to assume that he would compare the data he had gathered, and he may even be surprised to learn that it was quite plausible that this country is actually alive and vibrant, has an unemployment rate that is the lowest in the West, has a combat-ready army and could actually extend its long arm (according to foreign media) well into enemy territory to carry out surgical strikes after which all troops return home unharmed. He would also learn that the roads in Israel are flooded with the newest models and that its airport is full of Israelis who travel overseas and tourists who come to visit. Yes, there are also poor, as well as socio-economic disparities. And there is the issue of unaffordable housing. But most of the country's citizens say over and over again that they are proud to live here.
And, most importantly, he will learn that this country is a democracy.
Mozes tried to influence that as well. There are those who believe that when a paper champions a set of policies, that amounts to a left- or right-wing political agenda. That is wrong, they say. But Noni never second-guesses the policies he promotes: over at Yedioth Ahronoth, they just build candidates from scratch and run them through in-house parties.
Look at what Noni Mozes did in the run-up to the election and during the actual campaign. The first move was focused on forming a party for then columnist and TV host Yair Lapid; building of the party began well in advance and was run on the inertia provided by Lapid's column in the paper and his job as the anchorman in the popular Channel 2 Friday night news magazine.
Shooting to no avail
For those who forgot, the party debuted prematurely in a hasty fashion and after initially reaching a crescendo, it began to slip in the polls. Just over two months ago, when the party was projected only six seats in the Knesset, Mozes decided to throw his weight behind another newly created party: Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah. Yedioth Ahronoth's weekly political supplement on Nov. 30, 2012, which had Livni pose in a blue dress for a friendly interview with lead columnist Nahum Barnea, was the epitome of promotional content.
But Livni then got into a fight with another one of Noni's friends, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, the convict and the defendant. Olmert, the thinking went, could not be left in the lurch. So the very same Noni rallied support for Shaul Mofaz, the man who had inherited a 28-member Kadima faction and now heads a two-MK delegation. Olmert was Mofaz's chief adviser throughout the campaign and was one of those on the party's organizing committee that selected its candidates.
And as if juggling those three political balls in the air wasn't enough — it goes without saying that all three were viewed favorably by the close political adviser and convicted sexual offender Haim Ramon — Noni threw another one up in the air: he began supporting Habayit Hayehudi in his paper. That is actually surprising, because the other three parties supported by Mozes all had the common set of ideas that could be refined to: peace process, social protest, no to an attack on Iran. So what does a national religious party, whose constituents include many settlers and IDF combat soldiers, have anything to do with those parties?
The answer, of course, is in the over-arching "tilting mechanism." Everything should tilt toward one goal: anyone but Bibi [Netanyahu]. As it turned out, this campaign produced rather disappointing results: on Saturday President Shimon Peres tapped Netanyahu to form the next government. Eighty-two MKs-elect said they would prefer to have Netanyahu serve as prime minister; no other name was mentioned in the consultations Peres held with the Knesset parties. Noni fired every possible gun he had at his disposal. He may have inflicted damage on the targets, but he failed to meet his goal.
The tools in Noni Mozes' toolkit are well known: Yedioth Ahronoth and its online news portal, Ynet. But that is only part of the story. The franchise is linked to other news outlets, be it directly or indirectly. And over the past several weeks it landed another prized tool, like ripe fruit: Channel 10. This is hardly surprising.
To get some perspective, one should refer to an interesting piece on Markerweek from last week. The piece, whose headline was "The Connections Theory" provides an account of the near-death experience of Channel 10 and the various changes it experienced as of late, which culminated with the appointment of former Yedioth Ahronoth editor Rafi Ginat — who is a close associate of Noni Mozes and his family — as the channel's CEO.
Election night as metaphor
A quick reminder: Channel 10 has been fighting for its very survival on and off for years. Large sums of money were thrown at it but to no avail. As a business and as a network, it proved to be a misadventure. Over the years, shareholders invested heavily to save it. An estimated NIS 1.5 billion ($407 million) were poured into its coffers but it still wouldn't turn a profit. The chief problem was and still is ratings. With the exception of a few outlier shows, most of the channel's programming has had too small a viewership. The special election broadcast on Jan. 22 was a fascinating case in point: 42% of Israelis turned to Channel 2's coverage, whereas only 10% watched Channel 10.
Please note: the viewers get to decide which channels they watch via the remote control. They vote, they decide, they determine the ratings. Channel 2 won, big time.
This lies at the heart of what went wrong with Channel 10: a ratings failure. Nobody watches the channel. That is why it has not been profitable. That is why it has almost shut down, again and again. It was not the government that wanted the channel shut; this was a result of their own failure to provide the goods. A private television outlet is a private enterprise; its future rests on it being successful, otherwise it cannot stay afloat.
Channel 10's method
But Channel 10 found a method that could bypass this cardinal economic rule: it turned its failure into the government's problem. Since its founding some 12 years ago, Channel 10 repeatedly turned to Knesset lawmakers to get certain exemptions and benefits. Didn't the channel say it would follow the guidelines of the tender it won when it first began broadcasting? It did say that, so what? This is the Israeli mentality; just because it won a tender doesn't mean its terms are binding; a contract doesn’t have to be adhered to; a commitment is just a starting point for future negotiations meant to introduce changes, add benefits and exemptions.
The channel has been given programming exemptions that are worth hundreds of millions of shekels. Just imagine what some of the channel's reporters would have said had they run a story about some random company that was awarded a tender and then immediately said it could not abide by its terms and conditions? The words "scandal" and "corruption" would have been used left and right; the word "tycoons" would have probably been thrown around as well.
But what happened at Channel 10? Its tycoon owners discovered the trick that does wonders. Rather than fight regulators over and over again, the channel let its employees and reporters wage the battle for it. Waving the flag of "freedom of the press" and making false accusations of "stifling free speech," the talents, producers, technicians and other studio employees took to the streets to defend their freedom of expression as well as their livelihoods.
The associate who became CEO
No one wants to see a media outlet shut down; hopefully one day Israel will have a dozen daily papers and ten television channels. As that beautiful song goes, "a thousand flowers will bloom." But someone has to pay for programming if we want it to continue. Who is going to pay if the business is a failure and the advertisement revenue is too low? Why the public, of course.
The Knesset convened for a special recess session during the election campaign for the sole purpose of legislating wide benefits for Channel 10: a state-issued loan to allow the owners of the channel (very wealthy people who may have been called tycoons in bygone eras) to squash the debt the channel owes to the state (and which has been partially forgiven); exemptions from future payments, and who knows what else. To make a long story short: the employees protested, the legislators were horrified, and this all produced a very big benefits package — that went to the owners. Some other provisions were tagged to the Channel 10 bill and, in the name of equality before the law (as befits benefits that have legal standing), the state granted Channel 2 the same benefits (short of the loan, as it didn't need one).
Two days after the elections, the heroes of Channel 10 were informed that Rafi Ginat, Noni's associate, was going to become the channel's CEO. "Was it worth fighting to save Channel 10 for this?" one top media executive was quoted in Markerweek. "Is this the alternative voice we fought to preserve?"
Smokescreen and a fait accompli
The answer is in the question. This was not about an alternative voice or about a free press, nothing even close. According to Markerweek, this was a well thought-out and calculated process that had been hidden from the public. A classic case of the "tilting mechanism" at work that should serve as a textbook example for future generations: you have a smokescreen in one direction, divert attention, make the real move behind the scenes — and then present the public with a fait accompli. When all was said and done, Noni Mozes effectively got control over Channel 10 without investing a dime. The public paid the bill.
Freedom of expression is a core value. Before Israel Hayom began circulating, Yedioth Ahronoth had a monopoly over freedom of expression. Other views were obscured or otherwise represented by token "fig leaves." Israel Hayom ushered in a revolution by bringing alternative views to the public discourse. These views do not sanctify the so called "peace process" at all costs; these views do not share the belief that Israel is always at fault; these views champion the notion that one should not be ashamed of being patriotic nor ashamed of supporting the prime minister when he is right. These views challenge the media elite's view that the press must be anti-Likud, anti-Right, anti-tradition, anti-Netanyahu — and that other opinions are taboo.
Unlike other papers, we have a variety of opinions, not just a few fig leaves. In fact, we're whole orchard of fig trees. Each person writes according to his or her own persuasion. We let the readers decide.
We have been accused of being a freebie. As if Yedioth Ahronoth does not distribute a free version of its daily newspaper at train stations, on campuses and other venues. As if Ynet is not free. As if anyone pays to watch Channel 2 or Channel 10.
In the latest TGI readership survey from last week, it turned out that Israel Hayom's readership has climbed to 39.9% on weekdays. Yedioth Ahronoth's was at 37.4%. Noni Mozes has a hard time accepting that. He has to find a way to restore his destructive powers. That's his way. He can be stopped. That is our way.